I read two separate tweets yesterday extolling the virtue of the new cookbook Easy Tasty Italian available in all good bookshops (and most likely those not so good) early next month. One of the tweets handily mentioned how a rampant cookbook-ophile such as me might feed their habit and procure a copy ahead of time and much to my delight a shiny copy of said cookbook was sat on the doormat awaiting my pleasure today. Who knew our post could be so efficient? And this is not just any cookbook this is a really good one! I feel I can speak from the vantage point of an expert of cookbooks, having managed to amass a veritable tower of them over the years and if there was an organisation called Cookbooks Anonymous I would be there taking the pledge.
The author of this delightful missive is the occasionally acerbic and always wise Mrs. Santini from Waitrose Food Illustrated. She’s thrown off her guise of culinary agony aunt and we get to meet the very elegant half Italian Laura Santtini (yes, in the transformation she’s gained a ‘t’!), daughter of the now retired proprietor of Frank Sinatra’s favourite restaurant Belgravia’s Santini.
So why does the world need another cookbook, Italian or otherwise? Well what Mrs Santinni is going to do is add a little va va vroom into your cooking. Her U.S.P. is the U-bomb or umami bomb, the little taste rockets she conjures up are flavoured butters, tasty pastes, salsas, marinades and most intriguingly - the potions and elixirs. The first section of Easy Tasty Italian is all about whipping up this wizardry. There is an artichoke, prosciutto, lemon & ricotta trifolata to juzz up a pasta dish. A rosemary, apple & lavender marinade to transform pork or veal, horseradish & rose butter with which to anoint red meat or oily fish. The glamorous sounding savoury enhancer wild mushroom & anchovy stardust or the secret weapon in many a risotto a Parmesan & prosciutto paste. And not forgetting the surely magical black chocolate elixir to provide that ‘je ne sais quoi’ to a beef dish. Laura Santtini defines umami as the "things that make you go 'mmmmm'" and as umami is the Japanese name for deliciousness she has christened her Italian version of this tongue tingling culinary alchemy as u-mamma! And where can you find this u-mamma in the larder? The answer is in some of those Italian stalwarts - Parmesan, prosciutto crudo, porcini mushrooms, white truffles, balsamic vinegar and salted anchovies. And though I can't bring myself to trumpet the tomato I'll concede their usefulness in Italian cooking, though frankly not in mine!
On top of the larder essentials she spices them up further with her alchemic pantry ingredients, a taster being - hibiscus flowers, pomegranate seeds, Amalfi lemon, pistachios, rose water, pink and green peppercorns, sumac, ginger and for that essential little bit of bling, edible gold and silver. Armed with this epicurean toolbox and a few grinding, cutting and cooking utensils this is where the magic happens. The rest of Easy Tasty Italian doesn't follow the usual formulaic cookbook format of chapters entitled spring, summer, autumn, winter or salads, meat, fish, vegetable accompaniments and desserts. Here in section two we have four poetically entitled chapters that are, Air ‘I was raw’, Water ‘I was cooked’, Fire ‘I was burned’ and Earth ‘I am tasty’. You’ve got to admit that’s a little different!
In Raw there’s prosciutto wrapped mozzarella balls with a soupçon of tapenade, scallops anointed with rose stardust and carpaccio and various ‘rich & thin’ alternatives. In Water the magic is applied to soups, pasta and risotti. I can’t wait to try the ‘cheeky lobster’ though the cherry tomatoes may accidently be forgotten. The creamy pesto with asparagus & crispy pancetta will be a must when asparagus comes back round again and the strawberry and balsamic with a few grinds of black pepper I already know I love but with risotto? I have to try that!
In Heat there’s the oxymoronic ‘hot carpaccios’, the beef tagliata with that ever so captivating black chocolate elixir, the strawberry and cucumber salsa’s swordfish (though I fear swordfish is now too endangered to enjoy) and veal Milanese with a variety of exotic twists. There’s a great bit headed 'roll, wrap & splash' which has all sorts of loveliness rolled in Parmesan gratings, wrapped in prosciutto and then doused in something suitably alcoholic or just extra-virgin olive oil if you must. The beef fillet with mascarpone & rose horseradish sounds truly inspirational.
And Earth is all about slow cooking so we have beautiful hunks of beef drowned in Barolo, the tongue-in-cheekily named Leg-over lamb (check out her reason for how this dish got its name), the infamous 36-clove spring chicken and a dozen twists on vegetables. I’ve always felt that mash potato is pretty tricky to beat but Mrs Santtini adds mascarpone and sweet roasted garlic to elevate it even further and she then suggests you could add an extra dimension to this mimosa with her wild mushroom and anchovy stardust.
If all this has still not whetted your appetite we round up with some charming take on desserts and if I need a licence to gather more table accoutrements Laura suggests ‘pimping your plate’ by procuring all sorts of random little glasses and cups in which to serve your accompaniments. For a final flourish the last recipe is a pink-hued Prosecco cocktail which has a sprig of rosemary as a verdant swizzle stick – sounds delicious!
I’ve been completely entranced by this book on first opening, I’ve already amassed some jazzed-up butter to slice a couple of rounds off to top steak or vegetables but after reading this I think I need to broaden my butter mountain further. I’ve been checking how my larder would pass muster as an alchemic kitbag and I fear it falls a little short, time I think to get out of a culinary rut, take a leaf out of Mrs Santtini’s enchanting book and drop a few U-bombs. They do say Italians do it better and this one may just might!